This has been a season for the release of movies that combine high drama with disaster. Whether that disaster comes in the form of an epic earthquake in California or in hybrid dinosaurs in Costa Rica, films such as these are intended to keep us on the edge of our seats with anticipation and terror.
Fifteen years ago, a blockbuster movie told the true story of enormous forces of nature that combined to create “The Perfect Storm.” Fishermen left their home port of Gloucester, Massachusetts on the Andrea Gail for the Grand Banks and finally a region called the Flemish Cap near Newfoundland. In the attempt to catch as many fish as possible and return them to shore before they spoiled, the crew underestimated or ignored warnings of two colliding weather fronts plus an approaching hurricane. The full fury of the resulting storm tossed the fishing boat from wave to wave until it finally capsized. Despite the heroic efforts of George Clooney himself, everyone on board perished. Several years ago, I visited Gloucester and took a photo of the Fisherman’s Memorial that includes the names of thousands of fishermen lost since the year 1623, including the six from the Andrea Gail.
The Gospel of Mark depicts a Perfect Storm of sorts. The Sea of Galilee is shallow and only a few miles across. Storms come up quickly, often without much warning, especially for first century folk without benefit of the Weather Channel. It is estimated that about twenty fishing boats were in use on the Sea of Galilee at the time of Jesus’ ministry, and those who fished risked their lives every time they pushed their boat away from shore.
About twenty-five years ago, the water level of Galilee receded several feet during a time of severe drought. Persons on the eastern shore noticed pieces of wood sticking up from the mud and launched an excavation of what turned out to be a boat carbon dated to the early first century AD. For several years, the wooden structure was immersed in a chemical bath. Since then, it has been on display at the Ginosar Kibbutz next to where it was discovered. Officially, it is known as the “Sea of Galilee Boat.” Tour guides for Christian pilgrims to Israel refer to it as the “Jesus Boat.” It’s not hard to envision Jesus and the twelve disciples in the boat; it is just the right size. And it’s not hard to imagine the long-disintegrated deck still in place, with Jesus resting comfortably below as the storm blew in from the west. Wind on the shallow water created wild waves as the disciples held on to the boat, the oars, their nets, and one another. And Jesus slept. And the disciples shouted at him, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
Mention of the movie, “The Perfect Storm” is probably not such a happy choice on Father’s Day. The six men who died in the Flemish Cap were mostly fathers with children anxiously waiting at home for their return. I imagine many of the disciples were fathers, also, with families peering into the storm, watching for that tiny boat.
On Thursday of this week, a father in South Carolina called the police to say that he recognized the image of his son from surveillance cameras at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Soon the son was in custody, and our nation has been watching the news closely.
It’s a Perfect Storm of sorts. Racial hatred combined with gun violence. A few have tried to make this about the persecution of Christians, though I find that puzzling. Presidential candidates are trying to figure out the right thing to say to their advantage while the head of the NRA has blamed the pastor of Mother Emanuel for his own and others’ deaths. And then there’s the Confederate flag. It’s a storm of unusual proportions, and it feels to me like a boat taking on water in imminent danger of being swamped.
Meanwhile, people cry out “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
On Thursday night, a commenter on a religious online forum pointed out that the Muslim holiday of Ramadan began the same evening as the shootings in Charleston. He wanted to make a connection between the two, and when I objected, he told me to pull my head out of the sand.
We are a divided country and we are a divided world. If we cannot see our own hatred, we will look for hatred in others. And if we cannot take responsibility for our own violent tendencies and policies, we will blame the victims of violence.
The more we hear about the young man who was welcomed into a group reading from the Gospel of Mark as we are today, the more it is evident that racial hatred motivated him to kill. It was a dramatic episode, but hardly isolated and certainly not only indicative of regional intolerance.
It’s hard to know what critical issue is more relevant or more important here: hatred of those of another race, in this case African Americans, or the ease with which privately owned weapons become instruments of death. We’re tired of the killings. We’re weary and wary as we await a verdict regarding Colorado’s most recent massacre. I sat in a full theater this week to see that dinosaur movie and I thought about the horror for adults and children trapped in an Aurora cinema two years ago.
We are a society of gun-owners, something that cannot be said for all other nations, especially those with far lower rates of gun violence. It’s a tradition that goes deep, and certainly most gun owners are responsible. What is the answer for eliminating or reducing tragedies like the one at Mother Emanuel? Even in a predominantly liberal and progressive congregation like our own, I doubt there is unanimity. And I would not be so arrogant as to tell you what course of action is best or what you should believe, let alone how to vote! But before we are citizens of this nation or state or community, we are citizens of the Realm of God, as we talked about in worship last Sunday. The priority of peace comes from the faith and from the commitments that are at the center of who we are.
Jesus stood up on the deck of that wobbly boat and said three simple words: “Peace be still.” It wasn’t just an appeal for a moment of quiet. The story says that the powerful forces resulting in confusion and fear simple stopped. They were no match for words spoken on behalf of peace. The storm ceased, the boat didn’t capsize, and the fishermen were amazed that the surface of the lake was suddenly calm. And they didn’t die.
Many are calling out within the African American community, saying “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Innocent children and women and men who are victims of random and domestic and otherwise intentional gun violence are crying out, saying “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
Much attention was given yesterday to the words of family members of the deceased in Charleston as they spoke forgiveness to the gunman at the bond hearing. I have to admit to you that I had mixed feeling about that. The sincere expressions of love in the face of hate were an incredible testimony to the power of love over hate. But I’m not certain that forgiveness can be offered that quickly or even that unconditionally. It’s very possible that those words may need to be reconsidered as grief settles in and the intense spotlight of national attention goes away. Forgiveness is generally hard work and the feelings that go with it may come and go. More importantly, those who have committed great grievances need to attempt to amend and to engage in reparation in order for forgiveness to be both offered and received. It is certainly not enough for us as a nation to look on and be moved by words of forgiveness. We are part of what makes it possible for such tragedies to occur. Peace and safety and equality and justice are even better than forgiveness, especially for those who may be future victims of violence.
Those who gathered for Bible Study in Charleston thought they were in a safe place. The tradition of sanctuary is an ancient one, and we will have the opportunity to hear later this morning about how a business owner and husband and father is being housed within the walls of church. Concerned people of faith are attempting to protect him from being deported and separated from his children who are American citizens. All people seek peace and safety, and we often have direct opportunities to act on their behalf.
We are those who can wake up from beneath the deck of the boat. And stand up at the bow. And speak words of peace. We can do what is just. And not be influenced in our decisions by what is personally expedient. what benefits those who are most vulnerable around us. We can think theologically and not just politically. And we must apply our faith and/or our convictions to our actions as we follow in the way of Jesus.
We are in the same boat. We are together. And we are united to all who suffer injustice and violence today in order that all may ultimately experience peace. Amen.